AROUND 40 million metric tons of electronic waste (e-waste) is produced globally per year, and about 13 percent of that weight is recycled mostly in developing countries. According to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), almost 9 million tons of this waste i.e. discarded televisions, computers, cell phones, and other electronics are produced by the European Union. UNEP considers this approximation of waste to be very minimal.
Informal recycling markets in China, India, Pakistan, Vietnam, and the Philippines handle between 50-80 percent of this e-waste, often shredding, burning, and dismantling the products in “backyards”. Emissions from these recycling practices are injurious to both human health and the environment.2
Developing countries with rapidly growing economies handle e-waste from developed countries, and from their own internal consumers. Currently, an estimated 70 percent of e-waste handled in India is from other nations, but the UNEP estimates that between 2007 and 2020, domestic television e-waste will double, computer e-waste will increase five times, and cell phones 18 times.
The informal sector’s recycling practices magnify health risks. For instance, primary and secondary exposure to toxic metals such as lead, results mainly from open-air burning used to retrieve valuable components such as gold. Combustion from burning e-waste creates fine particulate matter, which is attributed towards pulmonary and cardiovascular disease.
The health implications of e-waste are difficult to confine due to the informal working conditions, poverty, and poor sanitation. Several studies in Guiyu, a city in south eastern China, offer insight. Guiyu is recognized as the world’s largest e-waste recycling. It is noteworthy that dwellers of Guiyu exhibit considerable digestive, neurological, respiratory, and bone disorders. As large as 80 percent of Guiyu’s children experience respiratory ailments, and are particularly at risk of lead poisoning.3
Residents of Guiyu are not the only ones at peril. Researchers such as Brett Robinson, a professor of soil and physical sciences at Lincoln University in New Zealand, has cautioned that wind patterns in Southeast China disperse toxic particles released by open-air burning across the Pearl River Delta Region, home to 45 million people.4 In this way, toxic chemicals from e-waste penetrate into the “soil-crop-food pathway,” one of the most significant routes for heavy metals exposure to humans. These chemicals are not biodegradable and they can stay in the environment for longer period of time, increasing exposure risk.
The Basel Convention on the Control of Transboundary Movements of Hazardous Wastes and their Disposal bans the exchange of hazardous waste, including e-waste, between developed and developing countries. The United States is the largest generator of e-waste worldwide and the only industrialized nation not yet ratifying the Basel Convention.
E-waste is a critical global environmental and health issue. Promising policy responses have come from the European Union, which have declared the source as responsible for e-waste. Through this approach, manufacturers are made obligatory to eliminate hazardous toxins released during and post production.
How the materials found in e-waste can affect human health and the environment?
Electronic waste is filled with a veritable cocktail of toxic materials. Unfortunately, when this e-waste is not recycled and simply thrown out with the garbage, ultimately ending up in landfill. Thus bringing both human health and the environment are at stake.
A report by Environment Victoria and Total Environment Centre Inc. entitled “Tipping Point: Australia’s E-Waste Crisis/2009/Update” states the following affects from materials found in e-waste.
This toxic element has a proven history of imparting harmful health affects including brain damage. The exposure of lead to the food chain and atmosphere (through lead combustion) are the primary causes of health problems in humans. Lead disrupts the natural functions of water and soil systems thus, damaging the environment.
Mercury has a toxic affect on both human health and environment. A little amount of mercury exists in every house in light-bulb (the new energy efficient CFLs). If these light-bulbs are crushed as part of the waste transfer process the elemental form of mercury is conveniently transferred to local environment. Once in landfill and combined with organics, anaerobic breakdown takes place leading to the production of highly toxic methyl-mercury.
Cadmium can cause cancer in humans. Within environmental systems, it rapidly degrades soil health causing flow on effects to local ecosystems. If burnt, cadmium may also be released to the atmosphere.
Brominated Flame Retardants
When e-waste is oxidized during smelting, bromine will be released. The released bromine may then recombine with un-oxidized carbon under certain conditions in smelter emissions in the form of brominated dioxins and furans.
Inhalation of beryllium or beryllium-containing dust, mist or fume, may cause a chronic lung disorder called beryllicosis in susceptible persons, and beryllium is a probable human carcinogen.
Arsenic is classified as a carcinogen.
Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
Hazardous chemical additives (like phthalates) can leach when PVC components of electronic products are sent to landfill.
It is our prime responsibility to ensure that our future generations should have access to a clean environment as we did. Recycling e-waste is the only way to prevent these toxic materials from affecting human health and the environment in the future.
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